Monday, June 23, 2014
Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
Published April 2014 by Knopf
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review
In 1945 on the outskirts of Salzburg, victorious American soldiers capture a train filled with unspeakable riches: piles of fine gold watches; mountains of fur coats; crates filled with wedding rings, silver picture frames, family heirlooms, and Shabbat candlesticks passed down through generations. Jack Wiseman, a tough, smart New York Jew, is the lieutenant charged with guarding this treasure—a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian who has lost everything in the ravages of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, amid the shadowy world of art dealers who profit off the sins of previous generations, Jack gives a necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie Stein, and charges her with searching for an unknown woman—a woman whose portrait and fate come to haunt Natalie, a woman whose secret may help Natalie to understand the guilt her grandfather will take to his grave and to find a way out of the mess she has made of her own life.
A story of brilliantly drawn characters—a suave and shady art historian, a delusive and infatuated Freudian, a family of singing circus dwarfs fallen into the clutches of Josef Mengele, and desperate lovers facing choices that will tear them apart—Love and Treasure is Ayelet Waldman’s finest novel to date: a sad, funny, richly detailed work that poses hard questions about the value of precious things in a time when life itself has no value, and about the slenderest of chains that can bind us to the griefs and passions of the past.
I almost always steer clear of books involving the second World War. With thousands of books already written about the events of this time, it often seems impossible that there would be anything new to be said. I suppose, though, that a war that spanned the globe and involved millions of people, there is almost no end to the stories to be told.
Waldman has, in Love and Treasure, centered a collection of stories around a fictional piece of jewelry recovered from the very real Hungarian Gold Train. The book is more a collection of stories about the people who came in contact with that very unusual locket than it is a novel. It is a story of love, loss, guilt and home.
I was immediately swept up in the book, becoming emotionally attached to the characters even as the focus shifted from one story to the next. Such smart writing! Waldman had me rethinking everything I knew about the freeing and resettling of the Jews who survived the Nazis. Love and Treasure was a book I could not read quickly; I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing any detail, any nuance. I was as interested in the historical context of the stories as I was in the characters who peopled them.
The last third of the book dragged a bit for me; it felt as though Waldman changed focus as the book became more about women's rights in the first half of the twentieth-century and the thinking of the psychiatric community regarding women at that time. Not altogether uninteresting themes but so different from the rest of the book and it was the only point in the book when it felt like Waldman was teaching more than storytelling.
Ayelet Waldman is also the author of Red Hook Road and The New York Times bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits was adapted into a film called “The Other Woman” starring Natalie Portman. Her personal essays and profiles of such public figures as Hillary Clinton have been published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Vogue, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Her radio commentaries have appeared on “All Things Considered” and “The California Report.”
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions, check out the full tour.